5 Screenwriting Takeaways from the Historical-Horror Film 'Shadow in the Cloud'
February 17, 2021
Shadow in the Cloud is both a World War II film and a horror film. There is a lot in this compelling movie that shows screenwriters how this hyphenated-genre movie by writers Max Landis and Roseanne Liang can guide them toward a budget-conscious and unique take on what otherwise can be a costly adventure.
Shadow in the Cloud stars Chloë Grace Moretz as Maude Garrett, a flight officer assigned to a bomber traveling from New Zealand to Samoa. Under her protection is a bag with confidential material that she must deliver. She has been ordered to take this flight and, in spite of the wishes of its crew, has the documents to prove they must carry her.
From the very beginning, this crew of seven is hostile toward her, whether they’re overtly professing their disdain of a woman on board or they’re spewing sexually suggestive comments her way. With lack of space, they even order her into the bottom ball turret and insist they can protect the bag she was sworn to look after.
Garrett is surrounded by enemies: the crew, a stalking Japanese fighter, and a gremlin. Gremlins are notorious for their desire to sabotage aircraft and have been in the lexicon since the 1920s but were also made famous by both The Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and Twilight Zone: The Movie segment The Gremlin on the Wing. The notion of their wickedness is not unfounded during this time period.
Before we go any further, this is where we state that here are five points screenwriters can take away when they watch Shadow in the Cloud.
- Creating a single location
One of the impressive feats of Shadow in the Cloud is its use of a single location. While most of the entire film takes place inside the B-17, almost an hour of the 83-minute movie is spent in the claustrophobic ball turret underneath the bomber.
Designated to the turret, Maude Garrett is cut off from the rest of the crew physically with her only means of communication being the radio. She must fight a hostile crew who doesn’t believe her when she mentions spotting a creature on the plane or a suspicious aircraft nearby, or puts her on the defensive questioning her experience and competence when it comes to aircraft.
The writer must do a few things to make this work. The audience is watching one single character and this can get monotonous so the dialogue must keep the audience engaged: no fluff and lots of conflict. The writer can also use the tools of the surroundings. In this case, Garrett spots enemy aircraft in the distance and a gremlin on the aircraft, but she’s also stuck inside the turret unless the crew allows her to exit, all of which builds tension.
Another great example of single location, single actor storytelling is Locke starring Tom Hardy and written by Steven Knight.
- Creating a single character
Writers Max Landis and Roseanne Liang didn’t have a whole lot of time to build out Maude Garrett. We had to know who she was within a few moments of her introduction.
What they convey in the first moments of the story is that Maude is in a hurry and she will stand up to anyone to ensure she follows orders and is on the plane when it takes off.
The writers tell us immediately that she won’t back down in the face of a condescending, all-male crew — she’s someone who knows how to fight. And as we find out, this has both positive and negative consequences in the story.
- True to the genre
Regardless of the hyphen, this is still a World War II film so there are rules that should be obeyed. Whereas female pilots often ferried bombers long distance, the combat missions were conducted by mostly men. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Garrett can fly, but neither should the sexism coming from the men.
It would be hard to imagine a World War II movie that takes place in a bomber without any conflicts with enemy fighters or even mentioning the war itself. Even though this movie actually has little to do with the war, it knows its genre and must recognize the moment.
- A mysterious start
The first few minutes of the movie are filled with mystery and it sets up curiosity and intrigue. What happens?
- We watch a cartoon about gremlins and how they sabotage aircraft, but they are not real. It’s the term used for those whose incompetence on the ground impact the workings of an airplane while in flight.
- Garrett walks to the bomber and she sees something on the wheel before takeoff.
- Garrett carries a mysterious package that she must protect for the duration.
- Her orders are strictly confidential.
There’s a lot of set-up that leads into what will play out over the course of the movie, but it’s all shrouded in mystery. What this teaches the writer is setting up questions that will slowly be answered over the course of the film.
- Outside forces
Shadow in the Cloud is mostly about outside forces. The arc is quite small for Garrett but that doesn’t make the adventure any less thrilling. We get who she is and the world she lives in (female flight engineer in a male-dominated industry during World War II) and that’s all we really need to know. She is tough and smart at the beginning and the same at the end.
The journey we take with her is about her reaction to the outside forces and how she overcomes these challenges. Sometimes the character doesn’t need to change very much, which often seems to be the case in action or horror films, as we’re more interested in how they meet the challenge.
In this historical twist on a Twilight Zone concept, Max Landis and Roseanne Liang find a way to create an epic hero like Ripley from Alien, isolate her in a single location and create a force to be reckoned with — all while delivering a horror/historical film on a relatively low budget.
Shadow in the Cloud is now available to rent and purchase on streaming services.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures, where he was the assistant to the director of development. His screenplays have placed in a variety of competitions including 'Fatty Arbuckle', which was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.